DUBAI //Ask Awatif Akbari if the visually impaired should receive preferential treatment and she will firmly disagree.
Born blind, Ms Akbari, head of internal operations at Tamkeen, a training centre for the visually impaired in Dubai, has proven over the years that persistence overcomes all obstacles.
"Why should anything we do, or want, be any different from anybody else?" said Ms Akbari, an Emirati who holds a master's degree in public administration from Dubai School of Government.
It is this strength that Ms Akbari wants the public to recognise.
Tamkeen, meaning "enabling" in Arabic, began training the visually impaired in English, internet technology and communication skills in 2004, and matches the students to appropriate jobs while providing lifelong support.
Before the training centre opened, those with visual impairments were not able to realise their full potential, said Ms Akbari, 34.
She is in charge of all internal operations at the centre and grew up at a time when awareness of, and aid for, the blind were lacking.
As a child, she attended the Dubai Handicapped Centre.
"When I was four, I learnt how to read and write with Braille," she said. "But the problem was the lack of Braille material, so a friend and I began embossing material in summer so that we could learn during the school year.
"By the age of 14, I was typing out books in Braille."
As a student at United Arab Emirates University, where she graduated in English literature, she would take the help of her sister and a voice recorder to get through classes.
However, she found that in a job situation, people saw her disability rather than her capabilities.
"Despite having all the education, I was first placed as a receptionist in a company at Internet City," she said. "When I started working, the human resource people over there did not have any idea about the visually impaired and did not rely on my skills."
Her determination was rewarded in 2002 when she became the first visually impaired person to receive an award as part of the Dubai Government Excellence Programme and was honoured by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai.
Ms Akbari said her situation is similar to many others who were being restricted to mundane tasks in the workplace.
"Before Tamkeen, most of the visually impaired were working as telephone operators and receptionists," she said. "Now, with our help and support not only to the blind but the organisations they work in, they are being given better positions."
The centre, based in Dubai International Academic City, offers free courses for any visually impaired resident who would like to enter the job market.
"We do not only provide them with business skills but have a lifelong support programme to ensure they continue in any job successfully," Ms Akbari said.
Centre students become proficient in English and learn how to use aids such as screen readers. Afterwards, the institute places them, and provides on-the-job training.
"One of our students works in the HR department with the immigration authority. We helped her to learn how to use Oracle in the office."
She said with the advancement of technology, the visually impaired can do any computer-related job.
"To get used to the space, they just need a day or two and can then easily move around. We also consult for supervisors who will be assisting the visually impaired."
The centre, which graduated its first class of 16 students in 2005, partners with organisations such as Emirates airline, and the Dubai Naturalisation and Residency Department guarantees placement to all those who receive the vocational training.
Ms Akbari said such cooperation has resulted in many graduates being promoted to jobs that better suit their qualifications.
Tareq Al Banawy, the communications instructor at Tamkeen, said students were taught how to participate in meetings and write business documents, among other things.
"Most of our tasks are scenario-related," he said. "So we give them situations and teach them how to react and rely on their listening skills.
"They learn how to prepare different documents like memos, meeting minutes and official letters."
One of the bigger challenges for the students was spelling. "This is often a problem for them. So in every session I give them some words to learn and then take vocabulary tests."
Mr Al Banawy said by the end of the programme the students had a strong IT understanding.
Ms Akbari said she had noticed profound transformations among students who took part in the programme.
"They get more independent and when they start working they have more confidence in themselves," she said.
Saeed Al Suwaidi, 37, who works at Dubai Police, hopes to gain a better position after finishing his courses.
"I want do something else and apply what I know to other tasks," said the Emirati, who is a telephone operator.
"It was not difficult finding this job, but I do not want to continue doing this.
"I want to do something in public relations and, inshallah, I will one day."